An Approach to Marking Your Scriptures: Systematic vs Freeform

Scripture Study Techniques

Marking your scriptures - structured vs freeform

Do you mark your scriptures? Have you made them your own?

When I was in college a few decades ago, one of my favorite accounting teachers was a man named Ralph Peck. He was a real down to earth type of teacher. On one of the first days of class he was standing at the front of the room at the blackboard holding our 1,000+ page textbook on Intermediate Accounting to work a problem on the board. The book was heavy and awkward to hold. Suddenly, he turned from the board, set down his chalk and the book, took hold of the page where the problem was printed, and ripped the page out of the textbook. There was an audible gasp in the class as everyone was very surprised he would do this to the textbook. He looked up and said something like, “what? It’s just a book. It’s a tool for you to use. Write in it, mark it up, highlight important things.” I’m pretty sure it was part of a life-lesson he was trying to teach (but I never asked). I never viewed books the same after that class.

Do you remember Elder Bednar’s talk a few years back where he shared how he cut out all the references in the scriptures to study the scattering and gathering of Israel? It was a major project and he wasn’t limited by the constraint that the book was not to be used to further his study in whatever way he saw fit. If you don’t remember, here’s a quick video I made about it and how much faster it is to do it in Scripture Notes.

I marked up my scriptures a lot as a youth and young adult. Not only was it useful for pointing things out, but I would often find myself remembering a concept being on a page that had a verse marked in orange in the upper left side of the page and a small green marked verse under it. I could see the page in my mind and just needed to remember where it was to get to the concept. I have reflected often on how informative to my recall those colors were.

About 20 years ago, I developed the first version of Scripture Notes which was a personal application that ran in a web browser. There was no tool to mark up the text and so for about 20 years I never really marked up the scriptures. Sacrificing marking the scriptures was a small price to pay for the value of having the scriptures and notes side-by-side, particularly in search results. Now that I have the full Scripture Notes app as my daily study tool, it has reinvigorated my desire to mark the scriptures up to expose the meanings I had been writing about during that time.

This is what I have discovered over several months in marking my scriptures in Scripture Notes. My intent below is not to convince you to do it my way, but give you some ideas because I think we all struggle to figure out our “perfect” technique. The truth is, start doing something and then it will grow into a technique and in the future you might change what you’re doing and that’s OK.

Core Points

  1. Having a loose systematic approach is helpful for isolated marking
  2. Matching colors to concepts in limited ways is very helpful
  3. Being constrained by marking rules can slow you down
  4. Break the rules

I will now elaborate on these points with some examples.

Systematic Approach to Marking Your Scriptures

In one of my prior posts on if/then statements in the scriptures, I provided you with a graphic you could print and write down your systematic method of marking your scriptures. I shared part of my own method which is printed on a piece of paper that sits just under my monitor as a guide. I could probably throw it away now that I have established my marking scheme and use it regularly. It was useful in the beginning but I discovered it wasn’t ideal to use in every situation. Where I got the most use out of it was in isolated cases where I clearly saw something jump out at me.

For example, in my marking scheme, I have chosen to always mark if/then statements in orange/red combinations. There are thousands of these in the scriptures. This particular example is from Moroni 10 in the Book of Mormon.

Moroni 10 if then statement

Once you get used to marking if/then statements, you start to notice more of those exact same relationships but where the words if and then aren’t used such as this one in 3 Nephi 15:1.

3 Nephi 15 if then without those words

If there is an else statement present, it gets marked in purple.

2 Nephi 1 else example

If there is a wherefore/therefore clause, it gets put in blue indicating some type of resultant statement related to the if/then clause. In this verse, we see the wherefore is related to the first if/then pair. The reason the blue is cut off after “be” is because the “if so” that gets marked in orange is tied to being “brought down into captivity.” The “if” reason is stated before the “if.” You can also see an “else” statement at the end of this verse which contains 3 pairs of if/then statements. This is a lot like sentence diagramming but easier and without the technical terms and weird schematic drawings. :)

2 Nephi 1 wherefore example

I also mark “thus we see” type statements in green. There aren’t a lot of them so I also use green for other things as you’ll see below. These conclusionary statements are prophetic summaries of events. You might call them the “moral of the story” statements.

1 Nephi 17 thus we see example

When a verse clearly contains principles like this, my systematic approach rules how I mark the verse.

Flexible Approach to Marking Your Scriptures

However, I have learned that I also need to be flexible and I have some techniques that break the marking scheme. If I stopped at every verse I wanted to mark and had to mark it precisely according to my schema, I would get very little study done. A system has to be fast and that means flexible.

In this example from 3 Nephi 16, you can see an if/then statement at the end in orange and red, and then a green/blue coloration before it. (Just to clarify, I don’t mark every verse and I don’t always mark every word.)

If you notice in the orange IF statement, it says “if they shall do all those things…” “Those things” are all part of the text before the if statement. It wouldn’t be inappropriate for my marking scheme to color all that blue text in orange because it’s part of the “if” statement. However, if I did that I would lose sight of the start of the “if” statement by having a mass of orange. The actual if/then statement is pretty concise at the end but the blue marking shows a set of conditions that go with the orange “if” statement. So I marked it in a different color. Why blue? Because it wasn’t orange or red which had to be present for the if/then statement, and I use purple for “else” statements when there’s an if/then statement present. Blue looked good.

3 Nephi 16 if then statement

What to do when you have a list?

I like to separate the concepts of a list. In this verse, I started off with a green “thus we may see” highlight, and then I put what the “thus” statement refers to in yellow (when the Lord prospers his people). How does he do that? Each of the next items gets it’s own color and I just rotate through the palette of colors over and over till the list is done. However, I skipped the green and yellow in the rotation because they are like the offset of the verse and what it’s about. It’s really almost like a big if/then statement. IF the Lord prospers his people by doing X, Y, and Z, THEN they harden their hearts and forget him.  The end of verse 2 is in gray because it’s a negative aspect. Gray is my usual color for evil and Satan’s words. Then in verse 3, we have another if/then statement along with a thus we see. The inspired conclusion is IF the Lord doesn’t chasten his people, THEN they will forget him.

Helaman 12 list and conclusion

What do you do when you have a list within a list?

In this example in Mosiah 3, we see mention of the natural man. Following that I have a list of things that overcome the natural man. Then notice how mention of becoming as a child is mentioned twice like two pieces of bread around a list of attributes of children. To show the related concepts, I used the same color for the last statement as the one where it’s first mentioned, and then for the inner list, instead of highlighting the words, I colored the text in rotating colors. That helps me see the separation of concepts more clearly.

An Approach to Marking Your Scriptures: Systematic vs Freeform

What about a list when someone is speaking?

In this example from Alma 30, the anti-Christ named Korihor is going on about how it is vain and foolish to believe in Christ. Since it’s a speech, and not commentary, I chose to just color the text in a rotation of all the colors but in the middle, you can see where I used yellow to indicate the positive concept he was about to ridicule. This is all personal preference, but I’m sharing just to show you examples.

An Approach to Marking Your Scriptures: Systematic vs Freeform

God’s words

I grew up marking mostly in red because everyone generally starts off with a red pencil. However, I love green. Green is a symbol of life so for me, when God speaks, it’s green. Blessings and promises are green. For things like the beatitudes I marked them two-tone to show the blessed category in green, and then the promise separately in yellow. It’s almost an if/then type of statement.

3 Nephi 12 beatitudes

Here’s another example where to separate the concepts, I simply alternate between green and yellow and then it flows into an if-then (they shall) statement.

3 Nephi 16 God's words

How about bolding, italics, and underlining?

I like bolding to point out similar words or phrases so I can easily see where parallels exist like in this example. I use italics to point out nuances like in verse 5 where it indicates a future tense ordination, even though Christ is talking to his priesthood-holding Nephite apostles. Hmmm, what’s going to be different and new? I use underlines to emphasis certain points, and sometimes I combine them.

3 Nephi 18 bold



1) For me, the single most powerful thing I have ever done is the project to look for principles in if/then statements because once you do several hundred of those, you see them everywhere in the scriptures. I highly recommend the exercise. You can do that with the free version of Scripture Notes, searching a book at a time, though it is convenient to save a large collection note and delete verses from it as you mark them.

2) Remember Ralph Peck. Make your system your own and don’t be limited by preconceived notions about how you have to stick to tradition, or a system. Every verse and chapter might be marked differently than the last. It’s OK. Your goal is to bring meaning to your scripture study. Marking your scriptures isn’t an end in itself. It’s not an exercise in coloring, it’s a way to identify and isolate the meanings of a verse so they stand out to you.

3) Your methods will evolve and change over time. You may decide you needed to do something different all along. The beauty of a digital system is you can always change them later on your next review of those verses. Not only that, but there are some exciting features coming to Scripture Notes in the near future that will help you in this endeavor…

Got a question? Have a marking insight? Share it in the comments below.


An Approach to Marking Your Scriptures: Systematic vs Freeform

About the Author

God, family, country, scriptures, soccer, Sanderson, disc golf, dessert, development. These are a few of my favorite things. :) - Oak Norton

%d bloggers like this: